USGS Data Management

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Describe / Metadata
U.S. Geological Survey Data Lifecycle Diagram Plan Acquire Process Analyze Preserve Publish/Share Manage Quality Describe (Metadata, Documentation) Backup & Secure The USGS Science Data Lifecycle
U.S. Geological Survey Data Lifecycle Diagram

Data Management: Describe (Metadata, Documentation)

Throughout the data lifecycle process, documentation must be updated to reflect actions taken upon the data. This includes acquisition, processing, and analysis, but may touch upon any stage of the lifecycle. Updated and complete metadata are critical to maintaining data quality. The key distinction between metadata and documentation is that metadata, in the standard sense of "data about data," formally describes various key attributes of each data element or collection of elements, while documentation makes reference to data in the context of their use in specific systems, applications, settings. Documentation also includes ancillary materials (e.g., field notes) from which metadata can be derived. In the former sense, it's "all about the data;" in the latter, it's "all about the use."


Metadata describes information about a dataset, such that a dataset can be understood, re-used, and integrated with other datasets. Information described in a metadata record includes where the data were collected, who is responsible for the dataset, why the dataset was created, and how the data are organized. Metadata generally follows a standard format, making it easier to compare datasets and to transfer files electronically. Learn more about how to create metadata.

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Data Citation

Data citation refers to the process of citing a dataset in the same way that books or journal articles are referenced in research publications. Historically, the practice of citing a dataset as a source reference has been generally inconsistent or not practiced at all. In general, data citation is a good practice that benefits the researcher, data repositories and stewards, the scientific community, and the general public. Learn more about Data Citation.

Workflow Capture

Processing, analyzing, and transforming raw data into information can be a lengthy process. Researchers frequently modify and add to data, but rarely are these processes documented adequately. Without documentation on how a dataset was processed, others may not be able to reproduce the results. Therefore process metadata are required. Metadata communicate the what, where, and when, but process metadata describe the how. Learn more about workflow capture.

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Data Access Controls and Copyrights

Access to data may occasionally require limits due to sharing agreements or copyright concerns. Learn more about Data Access Controls and Copyrights.

Data Dictionaries

A data dictionary contains structured data names defining and describing the data resource. Learn more about data dictionaries.

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Keywords for Data Discovery

Keywords from a thesaurus can make your data more easily discoverable. They are useful for defining shared context or meaning within and across domains of science. Learn more about Keywords.

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What the U.S. Geological Survey Manual Requires:

The USGS Manual Chapter 502.2 - Fundamental Science Practices: Planning and Conducting Data Collection and Research discusses the requirements for data documentation:

"Documentation: Data collected for publication in databases or information products, regardless of the manner in which they are published (such as USGS reports, journal articles, and Web pages), must be documented to describe the methods or techniques used to collect, process, and analyze data (including computer modeling software and tools produced by USGS); the structure of the output; description of accuracy and precision; standards for metadata; and methods of quality assurance."


"Standard USGS methods are employed for distinct research activities that are conducted on a frequent or ongoing basis and for types of data that are produced in large quantities. Methods must be documented to describe the processes used and the quality-assurance procedures applied."

The USGS Manual Chapter 502.4 - Fundamental Science Practices: Review, Approval, and Release of Information Products covers the documentation of methodology:

"Methods used to collect data and produce results must be defensible and adequately documented."